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How to Pack Your Backpack

Woohoo summer is here!! Well not officially but we haven’t seen snow in a while, and in Canada that is enough for a celebration. With a couple backpacking trips on the docket, a common question amongst friends has been “How do I pack my backpack for a backpacking trip?”. The truth is, the way you pack your backpack can be almost as important as what you put in it.  Proper weight distribution will allow the pack to sit properly on your body (assuming you have bought a backpack that fits your body and have had it adjusted to do just that) and the order of which you pack items in will greatly effect the functionality of it. You don’t want to be that person that every time you need something from your pack you have to empty the whole thing, turning 10min breaks into 20min. Or be a safety hazard to the group because you have so many things hanging and swinging off your pack you’re about to knock someone out. So listen up! Here is how it’s done.

Trip Review

1. Sleeping Bag & Tent on Bottom (in first)

Think of packing your backpack as an order of preference. Things you won’t need till later, when you get to camp are on the bottom, go in first, and things you might need during your hike, like your rain gear go on top and get packed last. Compress your sleeping bag as much as possible, compression sacs make this easy peasy.  You should be able to fit your sleeping bag and tent side by side in the fist layer of your pack. Tent poles go vertical along the side. If your hiking in group, share a tent if possible.  Split up the tent (one person takes poles, another takes the body) to help distribute the weight or if one person is the sole carrier, alleviate their group food load to make it even.

2. Clothes in The Middle

Next put in your clothes but keep out your rain gear (rain jacket and pants) and a sweater (you might need to throw it on during breaks and hiking over passes).  Your clothes should not take up a lot of space.  If your clothes are taking up 50% of your pack room, you’re on the wrong track. Of course I’m all about looking cute on the trail, but there are smart ways to do that without breaking your back.  Put your clothes in a compression sack of its own or like me for many years, just use a black garbage bag! It’s waterproof, and gets compressed enough.


3. Group Food & Cooking Gear

The rule of thumb is heavy items should go towards the middle-bottom and centred in the middle laterally (one side of your pack shouldn’t be tilting from weight). This is why your clothes should not be taking up to 50% of your space, because if they did, then your food would be up towards the top it would feel like someone was pulling on your back trying to make you fall over. I usually split up the food per day, each in it’s own plastic grocery bag. This keeps things organized, especially when distributing food amongst a group to carry. Keep separate your personal trail snacks, you’ll want to put those in an easy access pocket for while hiking or on short breaks.

4. The Essentials Are Last

Last but not least, your rain gear and quick grab sweater are on top.  Your snacks, first aid kit, knife, toilet paper and head lamp should be in an easy access pocket(s). Most packs have a pocket for a platypus, but if your old school like me and only carry Nalgenes, just clip it on the side and strap it down. Make sure it’s not swinging around, this will greatly effect your weight distribution and undo all your great packing efforts! Not to mention, your hiking partner will be grateful for not being smacked with your Nalgenes with each step.


That’s it, tighten all the draw strings and straps, tuck everything in, you should be good to go! A good test as to how well you packed your bag is if it can stand upright on its own.  Pretty hard to do sometimes, but when you get it, high five! When you put your pack on, make sure its sitting on your hips and not pulling on your shoulders.  You should have had your pack adjusted to you when you bought it, if you didn’t head back and get it done! It will make a huge difference in how your body feels on long hauls. And of course, this should go without saying, but waterproof EVERYTHING.  Whether you pack things in waterproof compression sacks or black garbage bags, it’s worth the extra effort up front rather than pulling out a wet/damp down sleeping bag.


I hope this helps you on your next trip, and if you have any tips and tricks please share them in the comments below! Happy hiking!

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